Mark Paradowski grew up three streets from the former Wildroot building in Buffalo’s Bailey-Walden neighborhood.
At 32, he can’t remember the brick building being anything other than vacant and abandoned. But Paradowski is determined to do something about it – and his conviction runs deep.
“My dad’s family grew up on one side of the Bailey Bridge, and my mom’s on the other. My aunt remembered that as a kid, whenever I would drive over the bridge, I would say that one day I’m going to fix the windows of that building,” Paradowski said.
“The Wildroot building is the icon of the neighborhood.”
Paradowski, a data-based analyst for Fluent Energy, has mounted a Facebook campaign to find new life for the 1929 building with a rich Buffalo history. The warehouse and the administration building, which have three floors, are located at 1740 Bailey Ave., between Walden Avenue and Broadway.
It has been a half-century since Wildroot occupied the building, producing the iconic cream oil that was a fixture in men’s medicine cabinets in the 1950s and ’60s.
But there are major obstacles: The Wildroot building’s last owner, John Urban, died in 2011, leaving the building to an estate that has shown no interest in it.
Despite being structurally sound, the 100,000-square-foot building is also on the city’s demolition list because of loose bricks on the northern side that required a company to come out once to take some down.
“It’s just kind of a no-win situation for no good reason,” Paradowski said. “The property in its current state has far more value than a demolished one, but it has had no champion until what I’m trying to do. This seems to be the only way to possibly break through this.”
Gary Ziolkowski, the city’s chief building inspector, said the demolition listing is “inactive.”
“It’s nothing we are pursuing. It’s been there because of the possible danger to the public,” Ziolkowski said.
“It’s a solid building, and to take it down would be costly. There could be environmentals, too. At this point, we are hoping someone would want to come around and do something with it.”
Paradowski organized an Oct. 12 cleanup through facebook.com/wildrootbuffalo, with 20 volunteers showing up to pull weeds, trim trees, clear sidewalks of debris and garbage, and install a fence to discourage dumping. Exterior doors were added.
The goal is to mothball the property until a prospective developer, which Paradowski said could yet include himself, materializes.
The warehouse features reinforced concrete, with red brick on the exterior and large floor plates with some structural columns. The office building retains Art Moderne features, and staircases with curved metal railings and terrazzo treads.
The building, Paradowski said, could be ideal as an incubator for small businesses, as a repository for municipal storage, as artist lofts or, once again, as factory space.
“It’s set up on rail lines near a major north-south corridor. The inside of the building needs work, but it’s not full of trash or old equipment. It’s a pretty open space to work with, and it’s extremely solid,” Paradowski said.
“The Wildroot building is definitely a significant daylight factory building, and helps tell the story of the industries and everything that grew along the railroad,” said Tim Tielman, executive director of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture and Culture. “Factories like Wildroot are the reason why neighborhoods are out there. Without the factories, no neighborhood.”
The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation is expected to give an opinion soon on whether the building – if the owner’s support were forthcoming – is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. That would allow it to qualify for historic tax credits and lighten the redevelopment load while giving the building added protection. Another option would be to get the building local landmark status, which doesn’t require an owner’s approval.
Paradowski, a member of Buffalo’s Young Preservationists, said the building’s history and what it once meant to the community is an important reason why it deserves another life.
In the Wildroot building’s early years, it housed the largest cake kitchen in the world under Detroit-based Grennan Bakery.
The Wildroot company didn’t begin here. In 1909, two barbers launched the business in the Iroquois Hotel. Its most famous product, Wildroot Cream Oil Hair Tonic, was developed by company chemist Emanuel Gundlach in 1932. His son, Robert, worked there, and went on to invent the modern photocopy machine process.
Wildroot went on to become the world’s largest hair tonic supplier after moving to the Bailey building in the 1940s.
Wildroot’s peak sales period was between World War II and the early 1960s. Young B-movie actor Ronald Reagan was among those recruited to pose with the greasy hair look in advertisements with the catchphrase “Get Wildroot Cream Oil, Charlie!”
Wildroot was purchased by Colgate-Palmolive Co. for $10.5 million in 1959 and closed in Buffalo two years later.
Truly Magic Products, now known as TMP, moved in shortly afterward and made foam applicators on the second and third floors, while Transparent Bag, which did plastic packaging, moved into the first floor. Both left about 1982.
The Wildroot name was sold to a Florida company in 1996, which continues to produce the once-popular hair tonic.
“I actually bought some and wore it at a holiday party,” Paradowski said.
Eddy Dobosiewicz, who grew up on the East Side, has always had a high regard for the building.
“I always admired the building because it didn’t look like it fit there. There was all this railroad stuff there – with tracks crisscrossing and the sound of trains all the time – and then you had this modernistic, red brick structure smack-dab in the middle of it, right next to that bridge,” said Dobosiewicz, president of Forgotten Buffalo, which conducts tours of Western New York.
“I always admired the letters on it. They always seemed to gleam, and they stood out – always.”
Dobosiewicz said he worried over the years about the building’s ultimate fate, as windows started to disappear, and he wondered how much of a toll vandalism and Mother Nature had taken.
“But like the Central Terminal, that fortress still stands. They’re like the pyramids,” Dobosiewicz said.
In 1951, $200,000 in Wildroot stock was used to create the Wildroot Foundation, later renamed the Western New York Foundation. Over the years, nearly $15 million has been given to support community organizations and projects.
“The cool thing about Wildroot today is the foundation they started,” Dobosiewicz said. “They’re not making Wildroot here, but they’re still affecting lives in Western New York.”